Like so many series from Showtime, Shameless is almost a great show. There is a lot of great acting, along with a couple of parts that I suspect are written in such a way that it would be hard to play them properly. Joan Cusack suffers in that regard … more important for the show as a whole, William H. Macy’s Frank Gallagher is also susceptible … in both cases, you can’t tell if the characters are poorly written or the actors aren’t getting it right. I’m blaming the writers, since Cusack and Macy are so good so often in other material.
Showtime specializes in series that are part drama, part comedy. More often than not, the drama takes over … Nurse Jackie isn’t funny, Weeds used to be funny but that ended long ago. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does point to what makes these series almost-great. You’re never sure what the tone is meant to be, not because it’s ambiguous, but because it can’t make up its mind.
Still, Shameless has much to recommend it. It can be very funny indeed. Despite the regular sex, drugs, nudity, and crime (all of these at one time or another with characters who are minors), it’s a family show in the truest sense: the core of the series is how the Gallaghers maneuver their way through their poverty-level existence while remaining true to each other.
The one person who lifts Shameless above the almost-great is Emmy Rossum. This is not to dismiss the other great acting on the show, but Rossum is astounding. It’s too easy to write, but I’ll do it anyway: her first name signifies what she will deserve come the next awards season. Although I had seen her in other work, such as Mystic River, I admit she never caught my eye, and what is probably her most noteworthy role, in the “Sarah Brightman” part in The Phantom of the Opera, has never been on my list of must-see films. So I come to Rossum on Shameless with a clean slate. But no longer. It is impossible to exaggerate how strong she is as Fiona, the oldest child of the Gallagher family whose job is to serve as mother, father, and sister to her clan of siblings. Despite being heartbreakingly beautiful, she pulls off the tough veneer of Fiona without showing how much work she must have put into it. She’s great in the funny moments, she’s even greater in the dramatic moments, and she rarely overplays her hand, which is appropriate, since Fiona tends to keep things close to her vest. And it wouldn’t be a Showtime series without sex, so it must be said, Rossum takes on her sex scenes with aplomb … she is as hot as she is beautiful. When all else fails, the camera can just focus on her enormous doe eyes. Plus, in one brief scene that came as a complete surprise to me (who as noted above hadn’t seen her in Phantom), she belts out the “Star Spangled Banner” and reveals a terrific singing voice (which isn’t really a revelation, since she was singing in the Metropolitan Opera when she was 7).
There’s a reason that last paragraph is twice as long as any other in the post. I’d give the first season of Shameless a B+, but I’d give Emmy Rossum an A+ without resorting to grade inflation. It’s one of the great performances in recent television history.